Paula Green re-visited Bosnia for a week in July, the first time back since our projects ended there a decade ago. Here are her reflections:
A decade later, Bosnia is both the same and different. Most of the homes destroyed in the 1992-95 Bosnian War have been rebuilt, either by their former owners or by displaced people seeking shelter because their own homes had been demolished and they no longer felt safe returning. Some housing, however, remains in its bombed-out state, serving as a stark reminder that war was recent and human beings can be destructive in the extreme.
Photo: Paula Green with Vahidin Omanovic in front of the Center for Peacebuilding in Sanski Most, Bosnia (above left)
The fields are blooming again, the pastures have been restocked with animals, the infrastructure repaired, and the shops busy. What locals report is that the primary difference between pre-war and post-war Bosnia is a sharp ethnic separation, with Bosniaks (formerly called Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats living in different regions and no longer in neighborly relation to each other. Not only is the dream of an ethnically mixed Yugoslavia long gone, but the dream of Bosnia as the most diverse state in the region was also shattered by war and further harmed by the postwar legal arrangements.
Photo: Words on a memorial in the town of Kozarac, listing the names of 1,266 civilians who were killed in 1992 (right)
I visited the two cities of Sanski Most and Prijedor in northern Bosnia, where Karuna Center worked on peacebuilding programs with women and with educators from 1997-2002. My visits with the individuals I knew all those years ago were richly rewarding, emotional, and affirmative of Karuna Center’s contributions and impact on their lives. My host was Vahidin Omanovic, a Bosniak educator who now runs an NGO in Sanski Most called the Center for Peacebuilding, or CIM in the Bosnian language. Vahidin has just been awarded the Bremen Peace Award from Germany in honor of his courageous and creative inter-ethnic work in Bosnia. During our years in Bosnia, Vahidin, who is an imam, was a teacher and the only person in our project who spoke English, which he had learned from watching television as an adolescent refugee in a Slovenian displaced persons camp. Because he spoke English and took so enthusiastically to our work, we sent Vahidin to the US for our CONTACT Program at the School for International Training and then helped him complete an MA in peace and conflict.
1992: a destroyed building in the Bosnian village of Kozarac (above left)
2011: The same building, restored: now a peace center (above right)
Vahidin and I went first to visit Emsuda Mujagic (pictured below), the woman who originally invited Karuna Center to Bosnia and who now runs her own successful peace center (see photos, to the right) where she offers income generation projects, legal aid, women’s groups, NGO development advice, and groups for Bosniak veterans. Emsuda had gathered 5 members of our original 1997-2000 women’s group, all of whom spoke about the importance of our women’s circles in their individual and community healing. They especially remembered the depth, honesty, and integrity of our dialogue work, and reflected on the level of transformation that emerged from their experiences of dialogue with other Bosniaks and especially with Serb women. Emsuda continues to be a pioneer, the first to rebuild her home in the completely destroyed village of Kozarac, setting a precedent for others to follow and now a leader in this revived and thriving Bosniak community. Relations with Serbs in the area, however, remain tense.
In conversations with the educators from Sanski Most and Prijedor we met with, we again heard how helpful the training program for educators had been for them, and how they have tried to carry on the ideals and values they internalized from our years together. They admit, however, that they are not hopeful at present that Bosnia might be re-integrated, and they do what they can as Bosniak teachers in Sanski Most or Serb teachers in Prijedor.
My sense is that a national program of healing, called for from the government, would be the best way to jump-start the kind of conversations necessary for exploring the past in order to build a safe future. This divided government, however, has no interest in such endeavors and in fact, many wish to keep Bosnians apart from each other according to their ethnicity. There are no national NGOs with the status to initiate such a program, and no government units such as the department of education would have such a mandate. This lack of acknowledgment of the crimes of war worries me, as I do believe we need to learn from our past in order not to repeat it, and there is no such learning emerging throughout Bosnian society. Maybe it will come in time, and maybe the Bosnians can keep their country together and slowly repair their broken hearts and shattered communities. But so much more could happen if a concerted national effort toward healing and reconciliation was encouraged and modeled by those with visibility, especially if the roster of cheerleaders for healing was led by members of Bosnia’s rich ethnic diversity.
This January, I traveled with 12 students to Rwanda for a weeklong field seminar, as part of the Graduate Certificate program that I direct as part of Karuna Center’s relationship with the CONTACT Program at SIT Graduate Institute
. My co-teacher, Adin Thayer, is also a Karuna Center Associate. The trip connected students with a variety of NGOs and government institutions, many of which Karuna Center has worked with in the past, and allowed us a glimpse of courageous processes of healing and reconciliation among a population that was traumatized by the 1994 genocide no matter their ethnicity.
CONTACT students visit a TIG (Travaux Interet Generale, or “Work in the General Interest”) camp, where those who have confessed to genocide crimes may perform community service instead of serving prison sentences.
One of the more remarkable testimonies we heard was from a young man who joined the Hutu militias in the Congo in the late ’90’s and participated in attacks that included rape and plunder on Rwandan villages. On one of these raids he was severely wounded by Rwandan government soldiers. To his great surprise, rather than being killed, he was treated in a Rwandan hospital and then sent to a demobilization camp. After returning to his village, he decided to participate in a local reconciliation training led by Karuna Center’s long-term partner ProFemme
, a national network of women’s organizations. The experience dramatically changed his outlook, and he in turn now co-leads reconciliation trainings together with survivors.
We witnessed post-genocide work on many levels. We heard from a panel of survivors working with the Quaker-led Friends Peace House
on a trauma healing program (which Adin helped to develop) that engages survivors and perpetrators together, recognizing that all were emotionally wounded by the violence. We also held a dialogue with staff at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
who teach the history of the genocide to high school students of mixed ethnicity.
We met with the Women’s parliamentary caucus on the gains and remaining challenges for Rwandan women (at 57%, Rwanda now leads the world for the highest number of women parliamentarians)—and the Rwandan Men’s Resource Center
, which leads trainings on positive images of Rwandan manhood. We also talked with staff of Radio La Benevolencija
, an NGO that leads radio soap operas with a theme of reconciliation and has a listenership of over 90% of Rwandans (and with which Adin consults). Yet more of our community visits are detailed in SIT’s blog about the trip
We were surprised with a rare opportunity to witness a Gacaca
trial relating to the 1994 genocide. Though Gacaca trials have been drawing to a close, we were invited to attend an appeal. The Gacaca trials are a system of community justice, inspired by traditional methods, in which perpetrators of the genocide are tried within the communities where the crimes were committed. Those who confess receive reduced sentencing. One of the CONTACT Graduate Certificate students in our group, Derek Miodownik, wrote up his impressions of the Gacaca process he witnessed:
Upon arrival, we could see a man approximately in his 50’s clad in a pink shirt and long shorts that, as we came to find out, is the standard issue prisoner attire in Rwanda. The man in pink who I will call Bertrand was appealing his original Gacaca Court conviction of rape and violent attack at a roadblock for which he was currently serving a life sentence.
The judges took their seats behind a table at the front of the room and put on sashes that said Inyangamugayo, meaning “Person of Integrity.” The process seemed to follow a loose structure whereby the judges first took testimony and asked clarifying questions of witnesses from which they derived questions for Bertrand, and his responses would often be refuted by either the witness or anyone else who claimed to have pertinent and contradictory information. Once all the listed witnesses had been deposed, the floor was open for anyone else who wanted to come forward with information, and this same clarifying and questioning process ensued. This discovery phase often turned up names of other people who were not present at the hearing, but who could provide critical testimony if summonsed.
The site of the hearing on the second day was under a large tree at the base of a slope where it flattened out to meet the road. By the time we arrived many villagers had already assembled, and it was then that I truly understood why it was called Gacaca (Grass) Court.
The second day of the hearing brought new witnesses, and the questions from the judges got increasingly detailed and investigatory. They would hone in on questions such as, “What did you buy at the store?”, “What time were you there?”, “What were you carrying?”, and the responses would spark many doubtful snickers for community members in attendance. Once again, the judges’ highly investigatory approach led to new names and details being surfaced, and, accordingly, new summonses issued for another session.
The third day of the hearing brought additional witnesses who contended that they did not see Bertrand at the roadblock or participating in any of the violent attacks that occurred there as Tutsis tried to flee and take shelter outside the village. The day was marked by more sounds of disbelief or contempt among those present, with several community members becoming visibly shaken and upset. Bertrand was given a final chance to make a statement and delivered an impassioned insistence of his innocence.
The entire process was truly fascinating to witness: The thoroughness of the judges; The open forum approach to participation; The spontaneously unfolding content and responsive line of questioning; The myriad pieces of a jigsaw puzzle picture held by community members and assembled by the judges, themselves volunteers.
I heard it remarked several times that the genocide happened in broad daylight, so people must have seen what happened. This notion that the truth is discoverable through the pooled knowledge that inherently exists in communities seems to drive the Gacaca Court process. While so many people perished, there are still survivors who bore witness, or know someone who did, or carry pieces of critical information. And in much the same way that the Gacaca Court judges piece together their cases question by question, the Gacaca Court process itself has seemingly pieced together the fractured image of Rwanda, relationship by relationship.
This is the reason I lead this trip to Rwanda. Out of the most horrific violence, Rwandan people have developed new methodologies for transforming conflict and promoting healing and reconciliation. While many justifiably criticize the lacks in open political space and freedom of the press and there is undeniably a long way to go, we have much to learn from what is happening in Rwandan communities.